8 November ~ It seems to have been the season of strange and inflated results so far, and this weekend was no exception. Inverness Caledonian Thistle won 6-3 at Kilmarnock. Utrecht beat Ajax 6-4. And in the Lanarkshire derby at the bottom of the Scottish second division, Albion Rovers thrashed Airdrie United 7-2, the first time they had beaten their neighbours in a league game in 35 years (if you count defunct Airdrieonians as essentially the same club as Airdrie United). As shock results go, that one will reverberate around the greystone neighbourhoods of Coatbridge for some time.
In August 1981 I saw Albion lift the Lanarkshire Cup at Airdrie’s old ground, Broomfield. Their untrammelled joy on that summer’s afternoon, at the end of a four-way, weekend-long tournament that also included Motherwell and Hamilton Accies, told of a team eager to make the most of any rare success. Crowds at their perennially threatened home ground of Cliftonhill have been traditionally in the low three figures, while Albion themselves – promoted last season via the play-offs after finishing second in division three – have seldom ventured out of the bottom Scottish tier. Saturday’s seven goals followed just four in their first five home fixtures, and lifted them out of the relegation zone for the first time this season.
Media coverage has nonetheless been scant, so you have to scour the message boards to find out what it meant to those in the crowd of just over 1,100. “I first saw a Rovers match versus Stranraer in 1976, just after our last 'proper' win over Airdrie,” wrote one user at the Albion excoboard discussion forum. “We won the Stranraer match 5-2, but today must rank as the best Rovers victory in the last 40 years. I have often yearned for a result as good as the 8-2 win [over Airdrie], one month before my birth, in 1965; today was sensational. That was, without a shadow of a doubt, the finest match I have ever seen at my beloved Cliftonhill. And at Cliftonhill we must remain, as it is unique and beautiful.”
Fans were also full of praise for the way stewards dealt with a lone Rovers fan who attempted to wind up the traditionally Protestant Airdrie support with what was described as “a Pope flag”. The flag was calmly confiscated, and this scantling of sectarianism was universally condemned by all right-thinking Rovers folk, some of whom seemed genuinely shocked at the level of abuse some Airdrie fans directed at their own team after the game. Albion, you feel, is the kind of club that deserves more love and support than it gets.
Meanwhile, the Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser match report invoked ashen-faced Neasden manager Ron Knee when it described his counterpart at Airdrie, Jimmy Boyle, as the “shell-shocked Airdrie gaffer”. Boyle stood up like a man and said: “I’ll take that on the chin. I’m the manager and I picked the team, but as a team performance, it was really embarrassing.” But these are strange times, Jimmy Boyle. Just ask Alex Ferguson.
Of course Albion must now deal with the consequences of raised expectations. No matter how many defeats and setbacks a club has endured down the years, and no matter how stoical its followers have become in the long term absence of glory, every single fan at Saturday’s game will, while savouring the beauty of the moment, have fleetingly wondered if this was the first sign of something bigger. Premier League football in five years. Cliftonhill not only saved for good, but rebuilt and expanded, while retaining all its character. Then, in the unlikely shape of the Wee Rovers, a club emerges to challenge the dominant duopoly that has choked Scottish football for so long.
Most will have kept such delusional meanderings of the mind to themselves, but there’s no shame in wishful naivety. Even if it was just for one Saturday, and even if Albion fail to score for the next ten weeks, the experience now exists to be nurtured, mythologised and plastered across a T-shirt. Purists may love a technically flawless 0-0 draw, but for fans, when it comes to results, biggest is best. Ian Plenderleith